Pulwama terror attack: Civilian casualties in clashes point to increased suicidal trend among Kashmiri youth

Editor's note: This article was first published on 15 December, 2018. It has been republished in view of a major terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir's Pulwama district where a JeM suicide bomber attacked a CRPF convoy near Awantipora in Pulwama on Thursday (14 February, 2019) which claimed lives of at least 40 paramilitary troopers.

To the northwest of the outskirts of Pulwama town in Jammu and Kashmir lies Sirnoo village, located in the dangerous corridor between Srinagar and Pulwama through the restive "mohallas" of Pampore and Kakapura. If it isn't Tral — also in Pulwama district — it is usually the villages in this corridor that provide safe houses to local militants from South Kashmir. With winter at its peak, militants who took shelter at the Tral heights or further south in the higher plateaus have all gravitated to lower ground. They don't really need safe houses in the literal definition of the term because being local, they can move around with much greater flexibility.

Based on actionable intelligence, which seems to be flowing much more freely, combined teams of the Indian Army's Rashtriya Rifles, the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Central Reserved Police OFrce (CRPF) descended in Sirnoo in Pulwama and established a cordon by first light on 15 December. In the ensuing encounter, three terrorists were killed.

However, in an effort to get to the encounter site — first to help the militants escape and then to quickly retrieve their bodies for funerals — civilians in large numbers arrived at the site of the gunfight. Stone-pelting mobs, with great passion and unmindful of their personal safety, attempted to resist the security forces, resulting in the death of seven civilians, in a chilling reminder that the situation in South Kashmir seems to be worsening.

 Pulwama terror attack: Civilian casualties in clashes point to increased suicidal trend among Kashmiri youth

Representational image. Reuters

The involvement of civilians is adding a flavor of far greater negativity and opening up the security forces to greater allegations of human rights violations. Although this is nothing new in the 27-year-old proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir, and the Indian forces have faced such allegations before, this needs a a bit of an explanation on the basis of two questions: First, has the strategy of security personnel, developed over the past three years, failed to find adequate ways to tackle instigated mobs? Second, are civilians not mindful of personal safety and the high potential of becoming casualties? The answers to these could point us towards the direction in which South Kashmir is heading.

To begin with, let's examine the first question. It was evident in 2016 that the security forces had developed drills as per which different components of the combined forces focused on their domains of expertise. As a result, the CRPF was largely responsible for handling civilians, both before and after encounters; the Rashtriya Rifles occupied the inner cordon of a site and neutralised the holed up militants as they have heavier weaponry and the required expertise and explosive handlers to storm houses if needed; the police give close support to both, having mostly generated the intelligence, acted as guides and provided continuous liaison. None of these tasks are mutually exclusive and often overlap based on the circumstances. On Saturday, this strategy appeared to have been meeting the needs of the situation in Pulwama, though things did go awry every now and then.

Just a few months ago, in a high-profile operation, the Rashtriya Rifles left the encounter site earlier than mandated to avoid getting caught in the chaos of mobs descending on the site. As a result, they could not clear the unexploded munitions from the encounter site, because of which civilians, in a hurry to recover the bodies of militants, suffered casualties as the explosives blew up, leaving many dead and grievously injured.

Furthermore, it appears that on constant advice from across the border in Pakistan, efforts to counter the drills of the security forces are on. Officers involved in such operations say that social media is constantly used to mobilise mobs even as when security forces have early intelligence on militants holed up in safe houses. There is a finite limit to the procedures and drills that security forces can develop, and that is going to pose a further challenge to them, even as the strength of militants in Kashmir appears to have stagnated to around 300 to 350 after the killing of 238 of them this year.

The second question on civilians — especially the youth — being unmindful of their safety while fighting security forces with stones is a more complex issue. Clearly, the alienation they feel is at a far higher level than ever witnessed before. The mob's strategy is to reach the site of the encounter in large numbers and to have their strength constantly swell, target the cordon and the main party involved in the encounter to disrupt the operation. If the security teams have already completed the operation, then the mob attempts to get possession of the bodies of the militants so their funerals can be held in villages in full view of the public to motivate the youth even more for the "cause".

There appear to be few answers to this question, and the inevitability of civilian casualties in such encounters will continue to loom large. When the flow of such intelligence increases and the number of encounters rise, the cascading effect can be quite threatening to the prevailing environment in Kashmir. One is unaware of what methods are being used to discourage unnecessary loss of life; elders and clergymen appear to be at a loss as much as political leaders, who do not appear to matter. The ever-increasing radical content disseminated points towards the specter of suicide bombing, with child militants roped in for the purpose, much like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That will be another threat altogether, and the recent killing of a child militant in Hajin points to the very possibility, however remote at the moment.

There is a need for collective introspection to examine how the emerging threat needs to be countered. Operations against militant groups cannot cease, but there is a need for a call for greater social outreach to the civil society to play on emotions and underline the futility of sacrificing young lives on the call of radicals.

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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2019 08:42:40 IST